Bryn Roberts (photo by Randy Cole. Used courtesy of the artist)
Bryn Roberts (photo by Randy Cole. Used courtesy of the artist)

The Bryn Roberts Quartet plays GigSpace on Thursday, November 21, at 8 p.m. It's part of a cross-Canada tour which took them to the Cellar in Vancouver on Nov 15-16, and The West End Cultural Centre in Winnipeg on November 17. The tour continues to the Jazz Bistro in Toronto on Wednesday and Thursday, November 19-20, and the Upstairs Club in Montreal on Friday, November 22.

Pianist Bryn Roberts composes long, lyrical jazz melodies – memorable ones which are expressed through all the musicians in his quartet. You can hear them in his just-released third album, Fables – and when he appears with his all-star quartet at GigSpace on Thursday. That show will feature selections from Fables, as well as older compositions, some standards, and a few surprises.

Roberts grew up in Winnipeg, which is where editor Alayne McGregor caught up with him for a phone conversation on Sunday. He was at his parents' house for a brief stay, as he prepared for a concert that evening – and was a bit worried that a “pretty miserable snow storm” (a standard risk for Winnipeg in November) might affect attendance.

He's in the middle of a Canadian CD release tour which started with two sold-out nights in Vancouver last weekend, and will continue after Winnipeg to Toronto, Ottawa, and finally Montreal. While the CD was officially released in NYC in mid-September, and was briefly showcased in a European tour, this is the first extensive chance for audiences to hear this music.

It's also the first chance for Canadians to hear much of Roberts in many years. In the late 1990s, after he graduated from McGill, he was an important part of the Montreal jazz scene, and released his debut album in 2000 to considerable acclaim and a Montreal Jazz Festival appearance. But in 2001, he moved to New York City, and for most of the last decade his talents have been as much in demand to back up rock stars like Serena Ryder and singer-songwriters like Dar Williams as they are for straight jazz gigs.

For this tour, Roberts has brought three notable jazz musicians with him: tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, a Canadian expat who is highly influential in the NYC jazz scene and a member of John Scofield's “Quiet Band”; Matt Penman, best known to Ottawa audiences as the bassist in the SF Jazz Collective; and German drummer Jochen Rueckert, who has played with musicians like Mark Turner, Marc Copland, Kurt Rosenwinkel, John Abercrombie, and Madeleine Peyroux.

This is an edited version of our conversation: Let's talk about your new album. How long has it been in gestation?

Bryn Roberts: The last record I put out before this was so long ago [2004], and then I spent a long time working as a sideman in all sorts of different groups. I've accompanied singer-songwriters and I've played in rock bands. I played with Serena Ryder for a long time.

I wanted to do something of my own. It started gestating when I went to the Banff Centre for the Arts in January of 2011. So I think that's how I started working on it, and we recorded it last December, 2012. And in September it was finally out. So it was a year and half gestation process.

I went to Banff in the dead of winter to try to just take a little break from all of the sidemen music, because it can be hard to find time to do one's own thing. Especially in New York, where I just had to keep myself so busy constantly with so much different stuff just to keep my head above water. It's a very expensive city. I don't really have the luxury of just being able to play my own music and making some sort of living from that. I have to do lots of different stuff. So I decided to take 11 or 12 days and went to Banff. I managed to have some time to myself and some time where I could sit around and write some music, and it was beautiful. How long did the pieces take to develop? Over what time did you write them?

Roberts: It's hard to say. Some of the things that I started writing then just developed over time. A lot of times you have to road-test music, right? Or you have to play it out live a little bit to see what works and what doesn't. In between 2011 and 2012 I had the opportunity to play a little bit with my own band and check out what worked. As with anything in my life, so much of the stuff is totally last-minute, so I wound up writing a couple of new things right before we recorded in December of 2012. What sound were you aiming for on the album?

Roberts: That's difficult to describe. I never know ... I'm so bad at describing my own music or what sort of sound I was going for. You might refer to it as modern mainstream jazz.

I've been influenced by all sorts of compositional styles from the classic hard bop stuff, to someone like Kurt Rosenwinkel, to Chris Cheek. Seamus Blake has been a big influence. So there's all sorts of influences that go into it. But it's hard to nail down exactly what sound I was going for. But also when I sit down to write something, I'm not like, “Oh I need a tune that sounds like this.” You have to just let what comes out come out. And hopefully it's playable, and hopefully people enjoy it.

Sometimes just a simple song, beautifully played, is enough and it doesn't require too much elaboration.
– Bryn Roberts Your press release talked about a “melodic directness” in your music. What did you mean by that?

Roberts: I like a melody that is memorable in some way. It doesn't have to be totally note-y or very, very complex. It doesn't have to be jumping through hoops like a series of odd time signatures. Sometimes for me the music that I like – like, for instance, a composer like Wayne Shorter – is where the melody is something you can sing along with. Some parts of my writing are more complicated than others, but I do strive for some kind of simplicity when it comes to the melodic content. Maybe more of the complexity lies in the harmony or some of the rhythm. But I like melodies: I like long, lyrical melodies that you can listen to.

It's not that don't feel that there's a place for more abstract music, it's just not the way I hear it. I can't help but write the way that I write, and be influenced by the composers that I've been influenced by. I just comes out in a way that I can't really ... I don't think about it too, too much. I really noticed a strong emotional connection in your closing number, “Guess I'll Hang My Tears out to Dry” [a standard by Sammy Cahn].

Roberts: Thank you: what a nice compliment! What really appealed to you about that song?

Roberts: There's a great Frank Sinatra record that's called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. It has some arrangements by the great Nelson Riddle, and that tune is on there. I just loved it. First of all, it's rarely played. There's only a few recordings I can think of. There's a famous one: Dexter Gordon recorded it on a record called Go. That's a great record. But the lyrics are good and especially that recording, the Frank Sinatra recording I remember just listening to on repeat because, for me, it was suffused with so much emotion and the arrangement was so beautiful. I learned it off that record.

And also there's a pianist in New York named Mike Kanan. He's one of those guys that just knows every verse to every standard. He knows all the right changes and stuff. So one time I was playing a solo piano gig and he came by to sit in. And I knew that he knew that song so I asked him to play it – and he showed me some stuff on it, too. It was just one of those tunes that I really connected with for some reason. It's a beautiful melody; it's got some perfect jazz changes, and I love that arrangement, especially the Frank Sinatra thing. So does that also apply to “In the Still of the Night”? Did you have a connection to that one as well?

Roberts: I would say, of all the composers in the American Songbook (if you want to call it that), Cole Porter is my favourite. I love the way he synthesizes the lyrics with the melody; it's just fantastic. He was such a craftsman. I've always loved Cole Porter songs, and that one I just loved playing, and I thought there was some kind of cool little arrangement that I could do with it.

I've been playing that one for a little while longer actually than some of the other stuff on the record. I noticed when looking at your tour schedule for this fall that you're playing almost as much with Dar Williams as you are with your own band, or even more perhaps.

Roberts: Yes, this fall's been really busy with her. Was it a culture shift to be playing in a group where there's a lot less improvisation?

Roberts: Yes, definitely. I mean, I've always loved folk music, and I've always loved rock music. There's a whole side of my musical life which I chose not to ignore. It would be bad not to play other forms of music that I connect with and that I really enjoy.

But, yes, to answer your question, I suppose there was a little bit [of culture shock]. You get used to being in a context where improvisation is expected. So then when you're in a context where improvisation is not necessarily expected, that can be ... It's not like it's a hard thing to rein in, but it's almost like you have to switch. You have to switch mentalities a little bit.

Fred Hersch - he's not the sort of teacher that's going to hold your hand. He's very direct and he'll tell you things. He'll acknowledge good things that you're doing in your playing, but he also doesn't pull any punches when it comes to pointing out your shortcomings.
– Bryn Roberts Even as a listener, I find that a highly-improvised concert is a different listening experience. You tune your ears differently.

Roberts: Definitely. Did you find that playing with folk or pop artists might have influenced you to make your music more accessible?

Roberts: It's not necessarily that I'm wanting it to be accessible, but I think that it speaks to that directness of the melody. Sometimes just a simple song, beautifully played, is enough and it doesn't require too, too much elaboration.

For instance, that Frank Sinatra performance on that record: it's just a standard, and he just sings it, and it's beautiful. But it still sounds like jazz music. And there's an element of improvisation in whatever I'm going to be doing. Even if I'm playing with Dar, things aren't going to be exactly the same all the time. But it is nice to have a little bit of a directness that goes through the music. You grew up in Winnipeg, you studied in Montreal, you moved to New York City in 2001. So how did each of those scenes have an impression or influence on your music?

Roberts: By the time I left Winnipeg, I was 17, and I wasn't any part of the musical scene here at all. There were players here that I looked up to and I admired, but I could barely play. I was just learning. So really I would say the more formative influences were in Montreal.

Going to McGill, you have to learn how to play right away. You get thrust into these situations where you have to just cope. And the level is very high at McGill and so that was great for me. And also the professors were great, and especially [pianist and drummer] André White. He was a big influence on me. He was my piano teacher for the first two years I was there and he's such a wonderful musician and so encyclopedic about the history of jazz music and knows everything about recording.

Being around people like that ... and also there were just so many great players in Montreal, so many fantastic musicians both in the school and just on the scene. So that was certainly a very formative time. I was there was 1994 to 2001 and then I moved to New York in 2001, and I've been there a dozen years. You studied with Fred Hersch. Are you still studying with him?

Roberts: You know, I haven't seen him in a little while. But over the years, I've taken many lessons with him and that's been great. He was definitely a huge influence on my playing and I love his piano playing; I love his compositions. That's another example of someone who really writes very directly. He's very melodic and very lyrical.

I don't study with him anymore. He's very, very busy, though you're making me think I should go and have a check-in with him again. I should probably go take another lesson; I'm probably due up.

But, yes, every time I went to see him ... It's interesting: he's not the sort of teacher that's going to hold your hand. He's very direct and he'll tell you things. He'll acknowledge good things that you're doing in your playing, but he also doesn't pull any punches when it comes to pointing out your shortcomings. I can remember leaving a few of those lessons feeling at once inspired but discouraged about something I knew I had to work on. Seamus Blake: how long have you been collaborating with him?

Roberts: I met Seamus in 1999 or 2000 in Montreal. He used to come up from time to time to play gigs. And I did my first record, with him, in 2000: it was a record called Present Tense. So I've been playing with him – it's hard to believe now – for about twelve years.

And also he was responsible for some of my first gigs in New York. I just remember that he was helpful early on both in terms of hiring me for a few things and also just introducing me to people. He's been down there for a long, long time so he knows everyone in New York. When I've heard Seamus play live, he's struck me as a very strong-minded instrumentalist. Very collaborative, but also someone you have to keep up with.

Roberts: Oh yes. There's just a lot of conviction in his playing. His time is really, really strong. And he's also got this enormous sound. He's got one of the biggest sounds I've ever heard on tenor. So it does take some keeping up with, definitely. He's such a virtuoso. He's also, to bring it back to the melodic and lyricism thing, he's someone who to me just basically plays beautiful melodies in great time, and that's what I like. He also has this great way of interpreting my music. Sometimes when I write music I can almost picture what it's going to sound like with him playing it.

Night after night everything is different. There were a lot of things we played on Saturday night at the Cellar that sounded totally different on than they did on the Friday night. I have a general sense of how I would like things to sound, but I would certainly appreciate people's input and their creativity. That's why I hire great musicians.
– Bryn Roberts You're going to be playing with a different bassist and drummer, though very high-powered, than on the album. How will this change the sound?

Roberts: Well, every night is different. We just finished playing two nights at the Cellar [in Vancouver] and we played the same material both nights, but it was totally different. And right before this, I did a tour of Spain with the drummer, Johnathan Blake, that's on the record, and a different alto player [Jaleel Shaw].

So, whatever musicians you're playing with, that's what's wonderful about this music. They're going to bring their own thing to it, first of all. They're going to bring their own interpretation of it and their own angle, but also night after night everything is different. There were a lot of things we played on Saturday night at the Cellar that sounded totally different on than they did on the Friday night.

Some people are really, really controlling about how they want things to sound, but for me I would rather leave that. I have a general sense of how I would like things to sound, but I would certainly appreciate people's input and their creativity. That's why I hire great musicians. What reaction did you get at the Cellar?

Roberts: The Cellar was great. Both nights were sold out and the reaction was very good. We managed to sell a lot of CDs, which is always helpful for a musician on the road, especially one who's financing it himself.

What was also gratifying for me was that a lot of people from my McGill days just came out of the woodwork. There are a lot of musicians that I'd studied with at McGill who are now living in Vancouver. There's a great drummer named Jesse Cahill, and his wife [vocalist] Kelly Proznick and [saxophonist] Steve Kaldestad. It was nice to see some familiar faces. At GigSpace, will you be basically playing from Fables? What can the audience expect to hear?

Roberts: You can expect to hear mostly stuff from the new record, yes, and some of my older compositions. And we always throw in a few extra things. There's also – I asked each of the members to bring in a tune of their own. We just haven't had time to rehearse any of it yet. [laughs] Maybe by the time the Ottawa gig happens, we'll have a few new things under our belt. I would expect that it's going to be mostly stuff from the record and some of my older compositions, and our own take on some standards and some other tunes. What is the significance of the album's title, Fables?

Roberts: It's kind of weird. You know there's a tune called “Fables of Faubus”, which is a Mingus tune? So the tune “Fables”, I had initially called “Fables of Ferbers”, because of some twins in New York, the Ferber Brothers. Alan and Mark Ferber are these great musicians; one plays trombone and the other plays drums, and I've been playing with them for years. And as a bit of an inside joke, I called the tune “Fables of Ferbers”, as a tribute to “Fables of Faubus”. But eventually the “of Ferbers” part fell away and it just became “Fables”. And you felt this tune was particularly indicative of the whole album?

Roberts: I didn't have titles for most of the tunes until it was time to print the CDs. Some I had titles for but a lot of it I didn't. So “Fables” was an older composition that I had never recorded. It actually has been recorded by Alan Ferber on one of his nonet records. And I think it just seemed to make sense. It also seemed direct and to the point.

Fables cover artwork. (photo by Georgina Richardson)
Fables cover artwork. (photo by Georgina Richardson) Can you tell me more about the cover artwork, and the starfish design on that wall?

Roberts: I needed some pictures taken, just some general publicity photos for the press and on the website. And the photographer, we found this little old building in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, just at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, and it had these cool little stars on the side of the building! It's a very, very old industrial building. I'm not sure what the building actually was, but it's a brick building with these blue metal stars – and I don't know what they are. They seem to be more than purely decorative; maybe they were structural somehow. There were a bunch of them on the building, and she took a couple of pictures of them, and I ended up really digging the image. How difficult was it to arrange this Canadian tour?

Roberts: Very difficult. Getting the gigs was not the hard part, although that was in itself hard. It was more dealing with paperwork. Obtaining tax waivers for non-Canadian musicians; obtaining work permits for non-Canadian musicians. Then there's also this additional $250 fee per musician per gig that the government quietly snuck in in April, which I'm sure you heard about. It's a drag. So I had to get creative as to how I was going to deal with that.

But to answer your question, it was very complicated and very stressful. And it's so funny to contrast that with going to a country like Spain, which I would have thought would have been way more difficult. I mean: I'm a Canadian. I have a Canadian passport. I would have thought that doing a tour in Canada would have been simple by comparison. But, in Spain, I just showed up and flew into the country, and showed my passport, and we were heading to soundcheck. There was no paperwork, nothing. Do you think that having this added paperwork has had a chilling effect on Canadian audiences being able to hear people like you who play with American musicians?

Roberts: I would imagine that the main thing it does is discourage people who want to play in Canada from doing that, because it's just too expensive. It's very simple economics: when you have to deal with a flight, and a hotel, and dinners, and then you have to pay a work permit (which I can totally understand), but then you or the club has to pay an extra $250... I mean, we're not dealing with Britney-Spears-type money here. It's jazz music.

I would think that the main effect it would have is discouraging people like me from doing this sort of tour, or discouraging Americans from coming up here. I think that would be kind of a drag. You released the CD in New York City on September 14. Have you toured it much in the United States yet?

Roberts: No. I've done a couple gigs in the States. I've been so busy. I'm going to be doing more in the States in the new year.

I really definitely wanted to do something in Canada because I'm from here and it's been so long since I toured here. And I really wanted to do something in Europe. So I was working hard on that. Right now, I'm planning to do some more gigs around the States in the first four or five months of the new year and then I'm supposed to go to Japan in May which I'm excited about. Where are you going in the next year?

Roberts: Well, the next few months, til the end of the year, is pretty much spoken for, with the combination of this tour and some gigs with Dar and some other stuff with various other singer-songwriters and some other jazz gigs. I'm basically booked until the end of December, which I'm very thankful for.

But every year I never know what's coming around the corner. The next January/February I don't have a ton of stuff on the books. I have a few little things to look forward to. That's part of the job; you just have to keep planning for the next thing. And if you stop planning for a minute that's when you start getting holes in your calendar. I'm lucky I'm at a point now where I'm getting calls for things to play with other people like Dar and things generally fill up, but the stress of it is that it's always pretty last-minute.

I'm looking forward to playing in Ottawa. I've never played at this venue, but I've heard lots of great things about it. So I'm very excited about that.

     – Alayne McGregor